Oxford Net Zero launches to tackle global carbon emissions

17 November 2020

Adobe Stock 296957874 Net Zero Carbon
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The Oxford Net Zero initiative draws on the university’s world-leading expertise in climate science and policy, addressing the critical issue of how to reach global ‘net zero’ – limiting greenhouse gases – in time to halt global warming.

Leading academics from across the university, including a number of Oxford Martin School Lead Researchers and Oxford Martin Fellows, will come together to focus on the long-term questions necessary to achieve equitable, science-based solutions.

The team will be led by research director Professor Sam Fankhauser, who is joining Oxford from his current position as director of the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, and director Professor Myles Allen, physicist, Lead Researcher on several Oxford Martin School programmes including the Oxford Martin Programme on the Post-Carbon Transition, and head of the Climate Research Programme in Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute.

"Getting this balance right, and fair, calls for both innovative ideas and far-sighted policies."

Oxford Net Zero is a growing network and collaboration of leading researchers from across the university to provide advice and expertise in the global ‘race’ to net zero by national governments, global industry leaders and international organisations. Oxford Net Zero convenes and undertakes research to support policy interventions, and this month has been boosted by a £2.2M investment from the University’s new Strategic Research Fund (SRF). The SRF was formed in early 2020 to re-invest some of the University’s revenues from commercialisation activities into transformative research programmes.

"We’ve left it too late to meet our climate goals simply by phasing out all activities that generate greenhouse gas emissions: hence the ‘net’ in net zero," says Professor Allen. "Aggressive emission reductions must be complemented by equally aggressive scale-up of safe and permanent greenhouse gas removal and disposal. Getting this balance right, and fair, calls for both innovative ideas and far-sighted policies."

Professor Fankhauser says, "If we are serious about climate change, we have to start tackling the 'difficult' emissions from industry, transport and other sources – and safely remove from the atmosphere whatever residual emissions remain. Informing this challenge is central to Oxford Net Zero, and I am proud to be part of this important initiative."

"Since Oxford’s own students are the generation that will be footing the bill for delay in taking informed climate action, it is great to see the University putting its resources behind this initiative: there is no time to waste", says Kaya Axelsson, former Vice-President of the Oxford Student Union and recently-appointed Net Zero Policy Engagement Fellow.

To achieve net zero and avoid the worst impacts of global warming, carbon dioxide emissions must be drastically reduced, and any residual emissions removed from the atmosphere and stored. More than 120 countries are committing to net zero, representing more than 49% of global economic output, but official commitments with developed plans cover less than 10% of global emissions.

"It is great to see the University putting its resources behind this initiative: there is no time to waste."

Oxford Net Zero’s key aim is to address the issue of how we limit the cumulative net total carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This means tackling emission sources and removing surplus carbon from the atmosphere – since more CO2 may be generated by the energy, industry and land-use change than can safely be emitted, if the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement are to be met.

Professor Patrick Grant, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Oxford says, "Oxford Net Zero brings together our research in how to effectively realise the carbon transition, involving many departments and different disciplinary perspectives. We anticipate that more researchers and external stakeholders will become engaged in the programme, strengthening the impact of the ideas and insights that our researchers can provide."

Essential questions that Oxford Net Zero will address include:

  • How will carbon dioxide be distributed between the atmosphere, oceans, biosphere and lithosphere?
  • Where will it be stored, in what forms, how stable will these storage pools be, who will own them and be responsible for maintaining them over the short, medium and long terms?
  • How does net zero policy extend to other greenhouse gases?
  • How will the social license to generate, emit, capture, transport, and store carbon dioxide evolve over the coming century?

The international net zero narrative is being drafted now, and Oxford is at the forefront. In 2021, the UK will host the 26th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with crucial issues such as the role of international transfers in meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement still outstanding. The Oxford Net Zero initiative will provide key insights and resources at this critical junction for international action on climate change.

Academic leadership will include Professor Myles Allen (Environmental Change Institute, Physics); Professor Sam Fankhauser, Professor Cameron Hepburn, Dr Stephen Smith, Dr Radhika Khosla and Kaya Axelsson (Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment), Dr Aoife Brophy Haney (Smith School; Saïd Business School); Charmian Love (Saïd Business School), Professor Nathalie Seddon (Biology), Professors Mike Kendall and Ros Rickaby, and Tim Kruger (Earth Sciences); Professors Lavanya Rajamani and Thom Wetzer (Law); Professor Javier Lezaun (Institute for Science, Innovation and Society); Professor Tom Hale (Blavatnik School of Government), Professor Michael Obersteiner and Gillian Willis (School of Geography and the Environment; Environmental Change Institute).